Making a good image requires that we be adept with the tools of the trade. Monet obviously couldn’t craft murals of water lilies until he’d learned to handle a brush and mix paints (among a few other things). Learning to adeptly use a camera and post-processing tools, such as Lightroom and Photoshop, is an obvious, yet sometimes overlooked, necessity.
Technical skills are one of the key ingredients required to translate your artistic vision into something tangible. Perhaps a little ironically, if the technical aspect of image creation is done superbly, it may go completely unnoticed by the vast majority of non-photographer viewers. When poorly executed, however, the ways in which technical difficulties can distract from an otherwise strong image are myriad: blown out highlights, noise, camera shake, contrast, chromatic aberration, missed focus, Lightroom or Photoshop induced halos, poor exposure, etc. (Not that these things can’t be intentionally used at times in an artistic way, only that if unintentional, they can easily distract from the desired objective.) Further, if technical skills aren’t practiced at all they can leave you with no idea why an image may be foundering or how to improve it. If not practiced enough, they can be a significant, if not overwhelming, distraction in the field that prevents your conscious brain from thinking about the art and instead snags it up in trying to remember “what was it that’s at the third corner of the exposure triangle”.
Making an image that is technically solid is about solving what mathematicians call a constrained optimization problem. The constraint is that there is always only a limited amount of light, a limited rate at which information from the scene can be gathered. And you may want to use this information in different ways, say, to minimize the level of noise in an image or maximize the depth of field. Unless you can dramatically increase the exposure duration, you may be left having to decide how much of one you’re willing to trade-off to get the other.
To make things a little more complicated, some of these trade-offs aren’t simple, linear relationships. On the one hand, noise levels typically do decrease as exposure times are increased. Lenses, on the other hand, are often soft wide open, sharp at middle apertures, and then soften again as the aperture is further narrowed and diffraction becomes an issue. Mirror bounce and shutter-induced vibrations can be unnoticeable on a telephoto lens at very fast or very slow shutter speeds, but can blur images taken at middle durations, even on a tripod. And the exposure meter can be even less predictable. Modern exposure meters can do amazing things — or leave you with terribly under- or over-exposed images when they fail to intuit exactly what you want from the final photograph. Remembering to check the single and multichannel histograms can, thus, be critical, but how often have you forgotten to do that?
It’s a lot to think through in the few seconds before the leopard leaps from the tree and disappears into the brush. In fact, I’d assert there isn’t any way to weigh all of these trade-offs consciously at the critical moment. Instead, these decisions need to be practiced hundreds of times under hundreds of different lighting conditions beforehand, each time taking care to think things through, explore different options, and figure out the settings required to create the best image possible, practicing it over and over until the process and the requisite decisions become second nature, until you no longer have to consciously think about them, until your fingers intuitively know the settings for this type of scene under this type of light using this type of lens to get this type of effect.
And all of these trade-offs should be weighed from the perspective — not of creating an image that looks good on the back of the camera — but of capturing the data necessary to create the finished product you envision. For example, in the image at the top of this post, an exposure that actually showed a trail leading off into the hills on the back of the camera would have completely blown out all of the information in the sky because of the enormous dynamic range in the scene. The “appropriate” exposure, that necessary to create the envisioned end-product, was actually five stops under the metered exposure. The raw image, as viewed on the back of the camera, was nearly completely black with only a small white circle of sun with a rim of orange around it.
And that brings us to two additional facets of the Technical Layer. In the analog days, if you shot transparencies, once the film was exposed you were largely done. You got what you got. Black and white negatives opened up more room for interpretation. Different portions of the image could be dodged or burned during the printing process to adjust their relative exposure, but the scope of what could be manipulated and the type and fidelity of the changes that could be made remained limited. Today’s digital workflows offer an extraordinary extension of this process. An enormous range of possibilities is available at the photographer’s fingertips, but to be used effectively, the photographer must know what the realm of the possible is and have the skill to bring those possibilities to fruition.
(Note that it’s certainly possible to make amazing images without the significant use of raw-processing or photo-editing software. That should be a conscious decision made before you take the image, and one that’s borne in mind while weighing these trade-offs. Alternatively, if some level of post-processing is to be done, it can be critical to understand these development tools and their possibilities with the same level of practiced, intuitive skill that is brought to the use of the camera.)
An otherwise wonderful image that falls flat because a critical element is blown out, gritty noise becomes a distraction rather than a style choice, or missed focus draws the viewer’s eye to the wrong part of the image will almost certainly leave the photographer with regrets that may be difficult, costly, or impossible to ameliorate. Practice, practice, practice.